Here’s What to Know About Training Slow Twitch Muscle Fibers

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Photo: Getty Images/portishead1
In workouts, we tend to have the "bigger is better" viewpoint. We grab heavy weights, flow through ultra-bendy yoga sequences, and hit the highest speeds we can handle on the treadmill—all while thinking that the larger the exercise, the more effective it is. But it's important to not forget about small movements in fitness, which actually have an equally big impact on your strength.

You've probably come across these teeny-tiny exercise moves in workouts before. These are exercises like hundreds in Pilates, isometric holds of any kind, and basically everything that you do in Megaformer-style classes. What do these small movement-based exercises have in common? They work your slow-twitch, or Type 1, muscle fibers. "Slow-twitch muscle fibers are those that we use throughout the day to support our posture and joints," says Maeve McEwen, a master trainer at P.volve. "Smaller movements turn on the muscles that help eliminate short-term injury or long-term damage." That's because these hit your smaller, harder-to-work muscles, which are more supportive of your overall stability.

"Smaller movements turn on the muscles that help eliminate short-term injury or long-term damage." —Maeve McEwen, P.volve

Compared to Type 2 muscle fibers or fast-twitch muscles—which exert a lot of power quickly, but also tire quickly—slow-twitch muscles take a longer time to burn out, says Abbie Rosser,  co-owner of Urban Lagree. "Building on these and making them more efficient will significantly improve anyone's endurance." By incorporating small movements in your workouts to activate your slow-twitch muscles, you'll increase your stamina, and basically enhance how you fluidly you're able to move.

Trainers point out that small movements in your workouts set the foundation for you to perform better when doing larger movements, or exercises that work your Type 2 muscle fibers. "Training these small muscles in functional movement patterns benefits not only the longevity of your body, but your day-to-day movements," says McEwen. "Ultimately, the small movements in your workout routine are what set the groundwork for any larger movements you perform in or outside of the gym."

It may sound as though small movement-based exercises are a cinch, but that's definitely not the case (and if you've ever taken a Megaformer class, you know this). "Smaller movements are harder to isolate within the body and take more focus and attention," says McEwen. Not only that, but your slow-twitch muscle fibers have a higher fatigue threshold and require more reps to get tired, says Sylvia Ostrowska, founder of Pilates by Sylvia. "This is why you'll notice that someone who only does a Type 2 muscle fiber-focused workout will be shaking during micro-movements or pulsing on a Reformer," she says of the staple Pilates equipment. So if you're not used to these small movements, it's really challenging—you'll often feel muscles that you've never really worked before (and then be sore the next day). Keep scrolling to try these small but mighty exercises out for yourself.

Slow-twitch muscle fiber exercises

1. Bridge: Lie on your back with your arms along your body. Bend your knees and keep your feet directly underneath your knees. Lift your hips off of the ground, maintaining a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Keep your abs and glutes engaged and avoid flaring the ribs. Hold for 30 seconds, and add little pulses at the top if you want an extra challenge. Repeat 10 times.

2. The hundred: Lie on your back with your arms along your body. Lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. Maintain this flexion and keep your chin down, engage your abs, and reach your arms away from your shoulders, hovering over the mat. Extend your legs to a 45-degree angle (or they can be in a tabletop position). Hold your position as you beat your arms up and down, inhaling through the nose for five counts, then exhaling through the mouth for five counts. Avoid arching your lower back. Repeat 10 times.

3. Heel down, sit, and sway: Start by standing with your feet hips width-distance, soften your knees, squeeze your glutes, and shift your weight into your heels. Sit back two to three inches with an engaged core and straight spine. Drive your weight into your left heel as you pick up your right foot one inch off the floor and turn your hips to the left at a 45-degree angle. Place your right foot down at your 1:00, and sit back into your glutes as you feel the stretch in the outside of your left hip. Drive back into your left heel and use your low abdominals to pick up your right foot to return to your starting position. Repeat eight times on each side.

4. Shift back leg reach: Starting on all fours, squeeze your glutes and shift your hips back three inches. Take one leg straight out behind you, keeping your hips square and shoelaces pointing towards the floor. Using your glutes, lift the leg up as high as you can, maintaining a straight spine and straight knee. Lift your leg up one inch and down. Repeat eight times on each leg.

5. Plank saw with sliders: Start in a plank position (either a full plank or on your forearms) with each feet on a slider. Squeeze your glutes and use your lower abdominals to pull your sliders forward two inches, letting your pelvis slightly lift. Squeeze your glutes and press down on the sliders to return to the original plank. Repeat eight times.

You can also try this 15-minute Pilates-style lower body workout with sliders:

BTW, here's how often you should change your workout, according to a major fitness study. And here's how to find an online personal trainer for less than the price of a gym membership. 

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